Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How Jesus' body--even before the resurrection, is not "Just like ours".

When the Reformed argue against the Real Presence they often say that since Jesus' body is a material body, just like ours, he cannot be bodily present in the bread and nor can his blood be present in the wine. Jesus' body and blood, being localized in space and time, cannot be in more than one place at a time as a body. This can be traced back to John Calvin. Calvin wrote:

As we cannot at all doubt that it [Jesus' human body] is bounded according to the invariable rule in the human body, and is contained in heaven, where it was once received, and will remain till it return to judgement, so we deem it altogether unlawful to bring it back under these corruptible elements, or to imagine it everywhere present. (Calvin Institutes IV, 17:17)

For Calvin, there is an "invariable rule" of a human body--it is in a single place at a time, to which Jesus' body is as subject as ours. Also, to bring Jesus' body down again from heaven is unlawful, even repugnant of Christ's human nature and glory. (Calvin Institutes IV, 17:19) As a matter of dogma, it cannot be that Jesus' body is anywhere other than seated at the right hand of the Father in glory etc. for those who follow Calvin. He uses the term "absurdity' frequently to describe his opponents' views of Jesus' body, or that his views avoid absurdity. (Institutes IV 17:12, 17, 19). They are absurd not because they contradict Scripture, but because they contradict the properties a human body has. So for Calvin, discussions of Jesus' body start and end with the properties our bodies have. This for Calvin the objective, local presence of Jesus' body and blood is an empirical question more or less answered by the properties of a human body. It is my purpose to show that this is not a very strong objection at all. All I have to do is show from Scripture that Jesus' body is not like ours in every respect. And Lutherans believe this is so because of the personal union, which is to say for instance that shaking Jesus' hand is the same thing as shaking God's hand. But that is a post for another day.

Calvin is not completely wrong; the Son assumed a real human body, not a "phantasm". However, is it true that when God assumed human flesh that the resulting God-Man has the same properties we do? Is there a way to understand "human body" congruent with the Scriptures which is greater than the doctrine Calvin teaches?

There are some miracles which seem to defy what a body can do, but which never the less Jesus Christ did. (All Bible citations ESV)

First let us consider Jesus walking on water (John 6:16-20):
When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened. But he said to them, "It is I; do not be afraid." Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.
Human bodies sink when we try and walk on water without special equipment. This is because human bodies are subject to the physical laws of gravity as well as other physical laws--such as we cannot be in two places at one time. Human bodies have mass and three dimensions. If the displacement of the mass of water is less than the mass of the human body, the human body begins to sink. This behavior is called buoyancy. This law is as immutable as any other and is routinely used in shipbuilding. While this example does not show that Jesus can be in more than one place at one time, it does show that the God-Man Jesus Christ can violate the laws of physics because at least one attribute of divinity carried along the "mundane" body of Jesus Christ. God's mastery of his creation was exercised through Jesus' body. One might say it is absurd to claim a human body walked on water so we should discard the account.

Second, let us consider the transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36):

Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah"— not knowing what he said. As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!" And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.

Human bodies do not change their faces and cause their clothes to become "dazzling white". As with the previous example, this does not show Jesus could be in more than one place at one time, but it does show how the God-Man's body does not exactly behave like ours.

Finally, let us consider the accounts of Jesus after his resurrection. Please see the following passages for reference:

(Luke 24:28-31)
So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent." So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight.
(Luke 24:36-43)
As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, "Peace to you!" But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. And he said to them, "Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them.
(John 20:19-23)
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." 20When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you." 22And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld."
(John 19:26-29)
Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" 29Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
In the two Luke passages above, Jesus does things which a typical human body cannot do. In the first passage he simply disappears right after breaking bread, in the second he simply appears and the disciples are frightened, even thinking he is a ghost! He allays their fears by showing them he does indeed have a body, and even eats some food. In the two John passages Jesus appears to pass through locked doors. In all three cases Jesus ' body does things which a typical human body cannot do. If we follow Calvin, we should say this is absurd to believe Jesus passed through locked doors, disappeared or otherwise behaved in a way not consistent with a typical human body. Indeed his theological descendants say it is absurd because it violates Calvin's teaching of "the invariable rule in the human body". However, seems to me that the physical quality of Jesus’ body is quite variable--especially if we are not limited by our experiences of what exactly human nature is, and what a human body can do. Apparently Jesus' human body can pass through material objects and disappear from sight. If this is part of normal human nature I am sure the Special Forces would like to hear about it as I am sure they would find it useful.

Now, some may object that Jesus vanishing was nothing more than his walking or travelling away. And that he either opened the doors, created a key to open them or otherwise passed through the doors in a basically typical manner. In the first case I would just point out that using the word "vanished" or "afantos" (related to phantasma, whence our phantom!) in this context does not imply picking up one's things and moving along--it implies a disappearance. Indeed, the passage states they recognized him and he vanished.

In the second case, one must re-interpret "the doors were locked" to mean "the doors were unlocked", based solely upon the propositions of what properties a human body must have. In both cases, an extraneous interpolation of philosophical commitments into the text to make them fit those commitments. And this is the problem with Calvin's approach, and also with those who are his theological descendants. It does not seem that Calvin's teaching can explain various Scripture passages which clearly show that Jesus' body, being fully human and material, could never the less, because he is God, perform various acts which violate what a human body can strictly do.

UPDATE: Triablogue Responds. He basically recapitulates Calvin's critique. I will respond in another post.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, but there are a couple incidents I thought of that you need to deal with. The first, in the 14th chapter of Matthew, is when Peter walked on water. The second, in the 8th chapter of Acts, is when Philip disappeared from the eunuch's site and was whisked away to another location. These incidents surely do not point to any unusual properties of the bodies of Peter or Philip. They were just acts of God.

John Borden

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